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The Globe and Mail

AI and data are music to recording industry's ears for recouping song royalties

SOCAN COO Jeff King, left, walks with CEO Eric Baptiste in company’s Toronto office, on Dec. 15. Mr. King says AI can help the group find talent by scanning social media.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 20 years after file sharing upended the recorded music industry, Canadian musicians are looking to digital technology in a bid to recoup money they've long been leaving on the table.

SOCAN and Re:Sound – two Canadian licensing agencies that collect that money for musicians – spent 2017 building world-leading partnerships that will help them better scan audio and video content online and on the radio, ensuring copyright holders are making as much money as possible while keeping an eye out for future stars, too.

Musicians and the companies that invest in them are entitled to royalty payments when their music is played in public or – crucially – online, which is happening more than ever. Historically, royalty collection has been like fishing with a thousand rods, each requiring manual effort to pull in a few bucks from innumerable sources such as radio, TV, concerts, cafés and, more recently, on the internet. Now, the agencies that collect that money for musicians are investing in technology that works more like trawlers: hauling in more royalties, more efficiently.

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But finding song placements in order to license them – whether they're in the background of a cat video or an amateur singer covering Drake – is a growing challenge. Even collecting money from traditional media sources, such as radio, can be a cumbersome, imperfect task.

The agencies deliver money to musicians based on two different copyrights they're entitled to when someone plays their recorded music. Re:Sound, which collects royalties for performers and record labels, has begun automating data collection across Bell Media radio stations, resulting in quicker payouts and more revenue for creators. And SOCAN, which handles similar licences for songwriters, composers and music publishers, is partnering with the University of Toronto to examine how artificial intelligence can scan the internet for untapped revenue streams and new talent.

SOCAN, which stands for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, has actually spent the past few years investing in ways to use data to deliver more money to Canadian songwriters. In 2016 alone, the member-owned collective acquired two companies, Audiam and MediaNet, to help monitor streaming data and audit services such as YouTube to license music.

SOCAN and U of T are focusing on two businesses cases to start, asking students to investigate how the technology can parse through audio and video to find media using SOCAN member songs that should be paying royalties to creators and publishers, and to seek out Canada's next big hit makers.

Jeff King, SOCAN's chief operating officer, says the processing power of AI can help the group find talent by scanning social media for rumblings of an artist's growing popularity. "If someone is mentioned, say on Twitter, outside their local postal code or zip code, there's more likely than not something special going on there," Mr. King says.

Finding Canada's next stars is crucial to the organization. SOCAN – especially in the digital era – must grapple with global competitors, such as U.S. giants ASCAP and BMI, to sign up Canadian talent. While some songwriters, such as Drake and the Weeknd, are SOCAN members, the agency missed out on its chance to recruit Justin Bieber, who instead signed with U.S. competitor ASCAP. In pop's great digital arms race, SOCAN is betting that technology can help keep Canadian royalties in Canada's borders.

The agency's annual licensing collections grew nearly 25 per cent over the five years through 2016, bringing in $320-million that year. Digital collections have grown more than fivefold in that time to $58-million. And there is room for more. AI-powered machine learning could help translate speech to text for, say, an off-key Adele cover, and subsequently collect a royalty for the song that previous technology wouldn't have caught.

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On the other side of music copyrights, record labels and performers have gotten a technological boost from an unexpected source: radio. Re:Sound and Bell Media, along with the record-label industry group Music Canada, announced in early December that they'd collaborated to make royalty collections more efficient at Bell's radio stations. The music-industry groups, having long pushed to implement a consistent system of metadata to better identify songs, worked with Bell Media to revise and automate their stations' processes for data entry and sharing.

Most of Bell Media's music-focused stations have shifted to the new automated process, which saves time and labour, and ensures artists and labels get paid more fairly and quickly, says Graham Henderson, Music Canada's president. He worked with Bell Media president Randy Lennox to broker the deal. While record companies and the radio industry sometimes find themselves at odds with each other, this deal was easier to strike – Mr. Lennox is the former president of Universal Music Canada, where Mr. Henderson was once a senior vice-president.

Inefficient radio reporting has long frustrated the industry. "What just happened here has been one of the holy grails of the music industry for decades," Mr. Henderson says. They now hope to implement changes across other radio networks. The changes, he says, have lowered associated costs by 28 per cent – which will passed down to artists and labels. Ian MacKay, Re: Sound's president, is thrilled at the result: "We believe it's much fairer."

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